Civilised politics and market confidence
25 September, 2015
After travelling to Australia or the United States, I delight in returning home — not because of my home comforts and familiarity but because of the people.
I think Kiwis are polite, understated and somehow more refined than Aussies and Americans. I know this is a sweeping generalisation and there are lots of exceptions but, honestly, after spending days with loud, opinionated and sometimes aggressive people, I welcome the quiet reserve of New Zealanders.
Watching new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull overthrow Tony Abbott last week, I again felt thankful to live in Aotearoa with our altogether more civilised people and political arena. Sure, we have leadership coups, political bickering and name-calling but we're tame compared to the Australians.
They have suffered five leadership changes in as many years. It is little wonder business and consumer confidence has languished. Instead of pursuing growth-oriented policies, Australian politicians have been intent on winning arguments, pleasing selected interest groups and attacking political opponents on personal rather than policy issues.
Abbott had been unpopular for some time, even within his own party. It was not helped by the fact his foot was rarely far from his mouth.
A well-regarded Australian journalist, Laura Tingle, wrote a piece in March this year, imploring Australians to do something about the fact that "we are being governed by fools and idiots" (her assertion backed up by the opinions of multiple focus groups). She likened the situation to the frog that gets boiled alive because it doesn't realise the water is getting hotter.
Another writer commented in April: "The bottom line is there is a sort of normalisation of awfulness. Bad policies and embarrassing behaviour have become so routine they are able to hide in plain sight".
That article generated 86 pages of comments from the Australian public and, having read these comments and others following Turnbull's triumph, I sense Australian voters are embarrassed and frustrated at the awfulness of Australian politics. Some of the comments noted politicians are only able to be idiots because the Australian public voted them in.
Nevertheless even the Australian public seems to be waking up to the fact that their version of politics is particularly ugly.
One could dismiss the most recent Australian political drama as being a one-off, akin to a playground skirmish. But we've seen similar behaviour before with Gillard, Rudd and others.
I stumbled across a book written in 1911 by Valerie Desmond, an English writer who had visited Australia. It was called The Awful Australian and the foreword said she wrote the book because there had been much adulation of Australia recently and she was "impatient of such credulity". Her observations of Australia, as it was in 1910, suggest Australian politics might have been ugly for a long while.
The first sentence to jump out at me was: "Of all the products of Australia, the politician is the least worthy and the least competent."
She went on to criticise politicians' poor oratory, lack of manners and need for more humility and a little less arrogance. She remarked that the Australian Prime Minister of the time was "fluent but to regard him as an orator or even an average public speaker is ridiculous to one accustomed to the polished delivery and deep thought of our English politicians." Ouch!
While her comments are more caustic than I would ever venture, her observations from 100 years ago are still somewhat valid today.
Australian politicians could learn a thing or two from others in the Commonwealth. Deep thinking, the ability to speak well, a little humility and good manners make all the difference.
Malcolm Turnbull is articulate and seemingly well-mannered. Let's hope he applies some deep thinking and good manners to overcome the century-old political curse and restore confidence in the leadership of his country.